Thursday, June 12, 2008

Serenity now! Entitlement, Sexism, Racism...and Carrie

(Warning: "Sex and the City" spoiler included)

Yesterday I finally got around to reading the latest issue of Newsweek and Ramin Setoodeh's article "Sexism in the City," which suggests that criticism of the blockbuster movie is largely sexist. As evidence, Setoodeh ( a male) points to the movie's lackluster reviews that seem in disproportion to its box office haul and to what appears to be a rogue effort by male reviewers on IMDB to give "Sex" an artificially low rating. The writer wraps the article up with the media narrative du jour: "See, this is the sexism that Hillary Clinton was talking about!"

Speaking of which, it's tempting to draw the parallel between the "Sex" haters and the Hillary haters. Ms. Clinton argued that sexism took down her campaign. No way, taunt the Obamaniacs. Fine. But we can all imagine a lunch between Hillary and Carrie, perhaps at a diner somewhere on Manhattan's Upper West Side. What would they talk about? Were the guys who held up the "Iron My Shirt!" signs for Hillary the same ones who voted Sarah Jessica Parker the unsexiest woman alive? And were they the ones who refused to vote for Hillary at all? Carrie once said, "Man may have discovered fire, but women discovered how to play with it." And long ago Hillary said, "I'm not some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette." She was more like Carrie: too big for that.

I was a huge fan of "Sex and the City," the HBO series, but the big screen flick? Meh! Good, not great. It was nice to see the gang again, but the movie illustrated why you can't go backwards in life. When "Sex" debuted in 1998, I was single and 20-something in a big city and it was fun to watch single, carefree women, who lived in a bigger city with bigger apartments, cooler jobs, more money, better shoes and more sex with hotter guys. It was fun fantasy. By contrast, the 2008 big screen version was a little too much "Marital problems in the city" for me--not so fun, frivolous or carefree. It was an hour too long. The broad humor (including diarrhea and bikini waxing jokes) seemed out of place. And it reminded me of why the "Sex" series finale so pissed me off: No smart woman wants to marry the commitment-phobe who strung her along for a decade, cheating, marrying and divorcing someone else, and ultimately when he finally gets back around to said "smart" woman--leaving her at the altar. And no best girlfriend worth her salt would ever support such madness.

But my thoughts on "Sex and the City," the big screen version, are not the point. Newsweek's article using the film's reviews as evidence of the direness of sexism today made my bullshit meter clang like firehouse alarm, and this isn't the first time since January that I have found myself scratching my head at gender violations the media and mainstream feminists tell me I am to be outraged about. Once again, I am left wondering why there is such a disconnect between the equality I want and the equality some of my sisters want, such a gap between their outrage and my outrage.

I've been toying with the idea in my head that part of the schism relates to entitlement and differing expectations. As a black woman in America, facing race as a primary barrier to navigate, I am used to being "other," used to being underestimated, used to being ignored and dismissed, used to people saying ridiculously biased things, used to my culture not being understood, used to not being validated, used to being thought of as "less than." I have no expectation that any of these fruits of race bias will go away soon. I'll just succeed in spite of them.

This is a white supremacist culture. Race bias is pervasive, if not always overt or even intentional. We simply all learn (every American) that white = normal = good. It will take a long time before Americans as individuals are purged of this bias. In the meantime, those of us committed to anti-racism must work to take away the institutional and legal barriers that block people of color from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, we need to work on hearts and minds, too, but even as we stand poised to elect the first black President of the United States, experience tells me that:
...Most white movie reviewers are not going to "get" the popularity and big box office returns of Tyler Perry's Madea movies (not sure I get it either)

...Some white people that I encounter are going to instinctively reach to touch my natural hair without my permission

...If I ever return to the corporate realm, some white person will no doubt mistake me for an administrative assistant rather than an executive

...White people will continue to praise me for being "so articulate" and not "even sounding black."

...There will always be white people that feel the need to bring up civil rights issues, hip hop or "black things" whenever they talk to me

...The behaviors of black people, like...oh...say...the giving of "dap," will be exoticized and scrutinized and dissected into the ground

These things are annoyances--the dull aches of modern racism. I'm not saying they don't matter--they do--but the major aches matter more. I'm more concerned with making sure that my stepson's former classmates back on the majority black Southside of Chicago get the same high-quality education he is now getting in a majority white suburb in Central Indiana; or that young black women like Mildred Beaubrun don't have to die because men feel entitled to their bodies; or that black women get the health care they need to lower our higher-than-average mortality and disease rates; or that my brothers and sisters in places like Haiti are provided the same chances for immigration as people in other parts of the Western world. These things are important; that a white acquaintance of mine occasionally uses "nappy" as synonym for "unkempt" is low on the list of priorities. (Yes, I do check it when I hear it.)
I think being black in America has given me a certain level of serenity. You know the Serenity Prayer?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

A warrior has to pick her battles and when you turn every annoyance into a grave injustice--you use up power that should be devoted to the war. If I, as a black woman, raged at every instance of race bias, I would be a very angry woman, indeed.

In this country and every other one, people cling to their groups. They favor what they know. Prejudice exists. It will always exist in some form or another. It is part of the human condition. If not race or gender, the prejudice will be about something else. I know that I will encounter it. I navigate around it the best I know how.

But many recent articles about the 2008 Democratic primary, even those written by feminists, express SHOCK that sexism is pervasive in America and outrage at even the most tenuous example of gender bias. There is an entitlement I find in the writing of second wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong and Linda Hirshman. They are entitled to what they want, when they want it.They are entitled to always have their efforts and needs exalted. They are entitled to always be validated. They are entitled to never encounter bias--minor or major.

The sexism revealed by Hillary Clinton's run for the White House did not shock me. As a woman, I expect to encounter sexism. I understand this is a male supremacist culture. Gender bias is pervasive, if not always overt or even intentional. We simply all learn (every American) that male = smart, powerful, competent leader. It will take a long time before Americans as individuals are purged of this bias. In the meantime, those of us committed to women's equality must work to take away the institutional and legal barriers that block women from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In my mind, that means ensuring that women have control over their right to (and right not to) reproduce; that the wage gap is closed between genders (and races); that good childcare becomes available to all women; that women are safe from rape and violence; that good black men don't become so extinct that heterosexual black women can't find husbands; that girls--no matter where they live--have access to good educations and are accepted in any field they choose to pursue.

There will always be some jackass who thinks it is cute to yell, "Iron my shirt." Most men are never going to "get" a movie centered on female friendships and expensive shoes. The "shrill, nagging wife" meme will be around probably as long as men have wives. Some guys will continue to smarmily call women "sweetie" on the job. And the division of labor in your average American household will likely continue to be less than a desirable 50/50. These are the dull aches of being a woman. And they aren't going away soon.

Perhaps the schism between American mainstream feminists and feminists of color comes down to the different ways we move in the world and the different burdens we carry. Maybe the Steinems and Ferraros and Clintons, used to a certain amount of privilege, feel entitled to a life free of dull aches, while the hooks and the Walkers and the Braziles know such a life doesn't exist.

Should feminists of color lend our mainstream sisters some serenity? Or has pervasive racism lowered our expectations so that we fail to fight for what we deserve?

6 comments: said...

Hey there Tami!

I was not at all interested in the movie, "Sex In The City"! I have seen that saga for so much of my adolescence and college years. BORING!

I love that you said:
A warrior has to pick her battles and when you turn every annoyance into a grave injustice--you use up power that should be devoted to the war.

So many sistas MUST heed that trumpet! Too many blow up at every slight, every dismissal, every insult. It is no wonder they are so tired and so drained.

You pose two questions at the end of your post.... I honestly do not believe that ANYONE who needs someone to GIVE them what should already exist within them can be lent it.

So many wonder how Ann Frank wrote in that cramped attic and how her writings reflected a centered person wise beyond her years....

What resides WITHIN US is a choice. Once we fully grasp that we will not seek peace or serenity from others - or even from circumstances.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Feel welcome to stop by my blog where we are discussing two topics this week: "Black Women and the Vetting Process for Our Allies" and also "The Redefinition of Black Femininity".

patrick said...

Sex and the City seems to have a polarizing force... people either hate the movie or love it; so far it seems like the "lovers" outnumber the "haters"

Jennifer said...

I think you are spot on in terms of identifying the divide between white women and women of color and the rhetoric around this primary season.

I, too, have been puzzled by the outrage--not that it's not outrageous to have someone hold up a sign that reads "Iron my Shirt" but because as you noted, black women go through subtle (and not so subtle) forms of this all the time. So I think the heart of it seems to be about privilege--recognizing the privilege that you have and that others don't--which is going to change your perspective about things.

I suspect this is why some white Americans get really outraged when they hear a person-of-color make a disparaging remark about their "whiteness" and then cry reverse racism. Many haven't experienced the sting of discrimination on a regular basis, or at all. And they just don't hear or see or feel it--and when they do, it's like the world is falling apart.

I know this is dangerous evoking THIS example (particularly if there is anyone lurking on your blog who have been supporters of the Lacrosse players), but I think the Duke Lacrosse case is a prime example of many white men reacting in indignation over the racial profiling. If you listened to the discourse (if you could stomach the discourse) it was a language borrowed from Civil Rights and Social Justice--but flipped to white men. I always thought that the 3 guys who were "exonerated" could have become interesting spokespeople for racial profiling--pointing out that the real inequities of racial profiling occur every hour of every day in the African American community--and recognizing that their ENORMOUS class, race, and gender privilege helped them out tremendously at the end of the day.

Sorry to get derailed (I think the "Iron my Shirt" comment reminded me of the "Thank your granddaddy for my shirt" comment).

Anyway, great post--as always, appreciate your thoughts and perspective--and we DO have to choose our battles, because we NEED to keep fighting.

heartsandflowers said...


Excellent analysis.

Movie Comment:
I just saw the movie and I was a little disappointed. The series worked best in the 25 minute format. The movie was definitely too long and displayed the huge income gap in society. Miranda could just move into another apartment, Carrie could buy back her condo AND buy another with little effort. Yeah I'd love to have such financial ease. And after everything Big put Carrie through he should've just sucked it up and let her have the wedding extravaganza she wanted - though I saw how the writers tried to make him sympathetic but still. They could've just left out the Louise character. And I was going to express disappointment with Samantha leaving Smith but then I thought about George Clooney and his revolving door of girlfriends so never mind. I'm just reminded of the the episode in Season 6 where Carrie's editor commented about women her age not being able to find partners because the men her age were dating younger women like Carrie. So Samantha is supposed to be the exception. The one thing I always liked about the show was the friendship between the women. All the men they slept with and no consequences beside hurt feelings?

Sexism/Racism Comment:
I would have never thought to use the Serenity Prayer under such circumstances but how appropriate!! Lisa mentioned not basing our serenity on others or specific circumstances as well. I know there's a bible verse that pertains to that also. That is hard to do - for me anyway. It is something I struggle with daily. Once I get past this lesson I am gonna soar. And it also really speaks to the lack of spirituality and wisdom of so many women who get so riled up over every little slight or in seeking their version of utopia. It's no wonder the Steinems of the world won't look into their racism and privilege. They're too busy walking around with self-inflicted wounds and not letting them heal to be concerned about others who are more seriously injured.

MacDaddy said...

Great post. Your analysis of the racial divide between white women and women of color is insightful. But I'm going to say something that may not make much sense, but my resentment of the movie and the tv series springs from the fact that New York is so multi-cultural, but women of color/people of color just don't seem to exist...maybe that's a luxury of white privilege-- you can just create a tv series and a movie, set it in a city that looks like the United Nations but make the only people that exist or matter are four middle income or upper income white women. I just can't get pass that.

Lanna'sMom said...

I read your post this morning, and want to write a thoughtful response; however, I'm grading papers, and can barely come up for instead of the long, thoughtful piece that's in my head--here's the short version (for now).

I came into 1968 young, naive and as feminist as a young, white country girl can be. I had come to the big city and within six months had met a young, equally naive Black man. We married in 1969. Without seeking such, we found ourselves surrounded by other "mixed" couples--they seemed to gravitate towards us, and it began to have the feeling of an exclusive kind of in-crowd, or club... All of these couples considered themselves at the cutting edge of the "revolution" ... but something was wrong. Even in my naivete I was disturbed by something both subtle and blatant. I remember looking around the room in one of these spirited debates, and was struck by an undeniable fact: These people who were so concerned about women, so concerned about Black folk, these people who considered themselves so revolutionary, were all white women and Black men. Where were the Black women? How could these folks express so much concern for Black folks, but only for half of Black folks? Black women were conspicuously absent and were only discussed in terms of someone's mama, or the look/attitude/anger towards these couplings.

I didn't know how to express my discomfort, my growing revulsion, or who to express it to. My salvation came in the form of three Black women who came into my life from three different directions and changed it forever. Their story would take much too long, although it begs to be told. For now, I'll just say that I disengaged from the "club" and my subsequent journey through life was accompanied by these women and many others.

The current debate and division that has overwhelmed us in this election cycle is skewed, as the question has become: "which is worse, sexism or racism?" It cannot have an answer because the question itself is invalid. It demands that Black women must be either Black or female, but does not allow for both... White feminists, on a whole, cannot imagine facing the world with a black or a brown face. This was never so clearly demonstrated as in Clinton's public embrace of rural white racists.

All women have benefitted from the early work of (white) feminism, but the inability to embrace or even acknowledge the unique dilemma and pain of Black women in this country, in this century is tragic. It brings me all the way back to 1969, as I looked around that room, and wondered where the Black woman were....


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